The good news for Frank Lampard is that it’s not as bad as José Mourinho’s second spell, but that’s the only good news. Sunday’s 3-1 humbling against Manchester City means Chelsea have taken 26 points from 17 games this season, 50.98% of the points available. Mourinho, in 2015-16, was on 31.25% when the axe fell.
But in terms of final seasons, 50.98 is worse than Andre Villas-Boas, worse than Mourinho first time around, worse than Antonio Conte, worse than Carlo Ancelotti, worse than Maurizio Sarri, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Robert Di Matteo and Claudio Ranieri. If the corridors of Cobham hiss with intrigue, there is good reason. No Chelsea manager under Roman Abramovich has survived anything like this before.
It’s not even close. Of those nine previous managers who started a season under Abramovich, only Mourinho (II) and Villas-Boas had less than a 60% record when they were dismissed. On Sunday, Lampard made his familiar appeal for patience. He referenced last season’s transfer ban, the youth of his squad and the great churn of players in the summer, without ever quite mentioning the £220m that was spent.
None of them are unreasonable points, but a club that has spent almost a quarter of a billion pounds would probably expect something better than a capitulation as meek as any by a Chelsea side since Maurizio Sarri’s team lost 6-0 at the Etihad in February 2019. That was a game with an end of days feel about it – and so too was Sunday.
Lampard spoke of the “character” of his side in the second half, and there was a flicker of life late on after the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi, but for long periods City passed the ball in front of weary, demotivated opponents; there was mutual acceptance of City’s superiority. Most worrying from a Chelsea point of view was that City have not been doing that to opponents this season – and that this was as close as a club of City’s resources will ever get to being patched together, without seven first-team regulars.
How, then, has it come to this? How can a side that a month ago was extending their unbeaten run to 17 games by drawing at home to Krasnodar have won only one of their last eight (and that a 3-0 win over West Ham that was nowhere near as convincing as the scoreline might suggest).
The answer may be no more complicated than the fixture list. Chelsea have a lot of very good players and that often is enough to beat weaker sides. Against Sevilla at home (the away game, a 4-0 win, was a dead rubber with both sides already qualified), Manchester United away and Tottenham at home, they shared 0-0 draws with opposition equally content to sit off and take a point.
Only against Southampton and Leeds did they face the sort of awkward opponents a club of their stature needs to beat but capable of hurting them. Goalkeeping and defensive issues cost them against Southampton and they drew 3-3. Against Leeds they were impressive playing through the press but even then, had Ian Poveda gone down when clipped in the box with the score at 2-1, they might easily have squandered cheap points.
The last seven games have been far more testing. What’s been evident is that the old issue of defending against the counter has not gone away, as exemplified by City’s third goal on Sunday. Had Rodri not wasted a very good headed chance early in the second half, the other characteristic failing from crossed set plays might have been highlighted as well.
Chelsea last season conceded more goals than they had for 23 years. The arrivals of Édouard Mendy, Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell have strengthened them, and they certainly seem less vulnerable in the air than they were, but structural issues remain. But there are now huge questions at the other end as well.
To speak of a manager not knowing his first XI in the modern age feels anachronistic. Rotation is necessary and the capacity to respond to specific circumstances an asset. But is there any sense at all of a coherent attacking plan? Timo Werner has played in four different roles this season – on the left in a 4-3-3, and through the middle in a 4-2-3-1, a 3-4-3 and, as on Sunday, a 4-3-3; none seem much to resemble how he played at RB Leipzig. Nobody seems to have much idea where Kai Havertz (10 league starts, five different roles) may fit. It’s perhaps not surprising if both look short of both self-belief and belief in general.
Abramovich may not be so hands on as he was when Mourinho’s struggles to accommodate Andriy Shevchenko drove a wedge between owner and manager, but no directors will take kindly to their two biggest summer signings looking quite so peripheral. Familiar rumours of player dissatisfaction have begun to dribble from a Chelsea dressing room that has always been among the leakier in the Premier League.
These remain very unusual times. Empty stands make public discontent harder to gauge. Lampard is still a club legend. In Abramovich era, only Mourinho (I) kept his job after failing to win the title, and then only for six games. He could probably survive missing out again, but only if there were clear signs of development, and probably only if Champions League qualification were secured. Top four, clearly, remains possible; the question of whether Chelsea are heading in the right direction is far more fraught.